The career death of Rear Adm. Brian Losey, the Navy SEAL leader being forced to retire after his promotion was blocked in the Senate, marks the most public punishment ever at the top rank of the elite SEALs, who are known for running below the radar with their combat missions and internal business.
Even more tension between Congress and the SEALs may be looming. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, said this week that he will oppose the nomination of Losey's replacement, Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski.
Hunter told The San Diego Union-Tribune that he has concerns about the incoming SEAL commander's past performance on contracting, training and acquisitions. He didn't elaborate on the alleged problems.
Szymanski couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
Losey, who leads the Coronado-based Naval Special Warfare Command, was nominated for a second star in 2011. Then the Pentagon's inspector general spent multiple years investigating him on complaints of retaliation when he was serving in Europe -- and eventually found wrongdoing. But Navy leaders disagreed with that conclusion and were set to give Losey his long-delayed promotion before the Senate intervened.
Some observers said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus championed Losey because the SEAL leader didn't raise a public fuss -- unlike the Marine Corps' commandant -- when the Obama administration pushed US military leaders to begin the process of opening all combat jobs to women.
Others discounted that theory, saying the inspector general's findings -- that Losey tried to punish whistleblowers under his command -- were enough to sour Losey's record with the senators who blocked his promotion during the past four months.
Still others said Losey touched off a feud with wealthy civilian backers of the SEAL-Naval Special Warfare Family Foundation, a Carlsbad-based charity devoted to helping SEAL families, when he cut the group's access to active-duty troops. Some of those civilians had the ear of Congress and let loose with complaints about Losey, according to a former board member of the foundation who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
"It was unique because [lawmakers] don't usually see that kind of vitriol coming back from constituents," the past board member said, referring to what are usually run-of-the-mill congressional confirmations of military promotions.
Losey, whose resume includes commanding the famed SEAL Team 6, is known as a respected operator with a reputed photographic memory. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
In the community of retired SEALs, some view him as the best of his generation of SEAL officers, who earned their commissions in the mid-1980s and were already in middle-management positions when the post-9/11 wars began.
"Brian Losey is without question one of the finest officers I've ever worked with. I've known Brian for 30 years. I've seen him in every possible leadership position," said retired four-star admiral Bill McRaven, the SEAL who led the US Special Operations Command from 2011-14.
"It's hard to see him go out with this cloud over his head," said McRaven, now chancellor of the University of Texas system.
Bob Schoultz, a retired Navy SEAL captain in San Diego, said "The whole community is disappointed because Brian's passion, his experience and his record won't be able to go on and serve our country."
McRaven, like several others interviewed for this story, cited politics as the reason for Losey's downfall. He said the whiff of reprisal against whistleblowers proved damning.
Meanwhile, a top defense official suggested that the Senate's ire was aimed more at the Navy secretary. Mabus, as the longest-serving top Navy civilian leader since World War I, is unpopular in certain corners for actions ranging from advocating combat gender integration to supporting openly gay service members to making controversial decisions about ship programs.
There's a well-known rift between Mabus and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading voice in Congress on defense issues and a frequent critic of Navy policies. McCain co-wrote a letter to Navy brass in January urging them to not promote Losey.
McCain's office didn't respond to a request for comment.
Some former SEAL officers who know Losey said his biggest management failure was that he let his temper run wild as he attained top leadership positions. Others point out that the SEAL culture is rough-and-tumble by tradition and by nature, reflecting an environment where people are assigned to do lethal work.
But despite his prestigious wartime record, Losey is being forced into a rare, inglorious exit for a high-ranking SEAL. He is the first Naval Special Warfare commander since at least 9/11 to not achieve a second star, according to people in the elite community.
In recent history, SEAL officers have gone on to become military luminaries.
Adm. Eric Olson ascended from the SEAL headquarters in Coronado to lead the US Special Operations Command, the entity overseeing all of America's elite military units. McRaven, who also held top jobs in Coronado, followed Olson to lead the special operations command.
For years, Losey's career looked like it would follow a similar path. Then came his troubles with subordinates.
The chain of events started in June 2011 in Germany, where Losey was assigned to lead the special-operations component responsible for Africa.
Official accounts show the timing was crucial because turmoil in Libya and elsewhere meant the command's once-relaxed atmosphere -- some have called it the "wine-and-cheese circuit" -- was about to change. In fact, Losey had to testify before congressional committees about his decisions during the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, where insurgents waged an offensive against a CIA base and the US consulate building there. Four Americans died in that incident, including three with ties to San Diego County.
Three employees -- one military, two civilian -- filed whistleblower complaints against Losey starting in 2011 for allegedly seeking to punish them. Losey had removed his chief of staff and two other staff members after anonymous complaints were filed with the Pentagon's inspector general about a suspect travel violation.
The inspector general found the original accusations to be unsubstantiated, but Pentagon investigators determined that Losey sought reprisals against people he thought had filed the complaints. In an internal memo obtained by the Union-Tribune, Losey has insisted that he dismissed those employees because of poor performance at a time when he was trying to boost the Africa command's tempo.
The Senate approved the nomination to give Losey a second star in December 2011, but the promotion was delayed pending the outcome of the Pentagon investigations.
After the Pentagon inspector general's findings last fall, the vice chief of naval operations decided that Losey was acting within reason. The Navy did issue Losey a letter of counseling, according to a defense official and various news reports.
Losey's nomination then went to a Navy review board, which voted 3 to 0 to promote him, the defense official said.
But by then, the sentiment toward Losey had changed in Congress. When it became clear that key senators would stall other Pentagon nominations in protest of the planned promotion for Losey, the Navy announced last week that it would withdraw the promotion and the SEAL would seek retirement this summer.